The Passion of Christ

The Word of the Cross

"The word of the Cross, to them that perish, is foolishness; but to them that are saved, that is to us, it is the power of God" (1 Cor. 1, 18).

THE woe and pain of Good Friday, its hope and grace, its message of sorrow and its message of salvation, are summarized and embodied in one sign---the sign of the Cross. In pagan countries, when the missionary, after elementary instruction, erects the Cross, this symbol makes a powerful impression upon those who see it for the first time; they look up to it with timid reverence and feel themselves strangely attracted and at the same time repulsed.

We are accustomed to the Cross. From earliest childhood it has graven its outlines into the retina of our eye. We cannot recall when and where we saw it first. We encounter it everywhere---at home, in church, in city and country, in many designs. Thus it has become an everyday sight and makes no special impression on us.

Today is precisely the day, therefore, to examine it closely once more and to allow it to influence our minds and hearts. Gaze upon the Cross. Can there be anything more simple than these two pieces of wood crossing each other, this upright beam to which the cross-beam is fitted at the intersection in the middle? Truly a simple, clear, and regular design. Yet it is the picture of the most striking contrast and contradiction, an eloquent symbol of pain, anguish, and death---this bare tree, stripped of foliage and branches, with two mutilated stumps of arms. And again the Cross with its firmly knit and straight lines is a picture of strength and solidity, the image of power and of life.

As a picture of pain and death, as a picture of strength and life, the Cross was chosen and determined upon as an instrument of salvation. As a symbol of death and of life, it dominates the career of Jesus and must also dominate our lives. This is what I would like to demonstrate to you, and consequently my entire sermon today shall be summarized in one word, the word of the Cross, of which the Apostle says it is foolishness to them that perish, but the power of God to them that are saved, that is, to us. May it, through the grace of Him Who was crucified and through the intercession of His Sorrowful Mother, be unto us truly the power of God!

The Cross with its hard, rugged lines and its form so barren of comfort and joy, the Cross as a symbol of torture, does not merely dominate the last days of our Saviour's life; it overshadows His entire life. Now and then one sees pictures showing the boy Jesus, in childish yet significant play, in Joseph's workshop, shaping a cross out of sticks and showing it to His Mother or to little John. A pious fancy; but truth is that even the eye of the Child saw the Cross of Golgotha because that Child was endowed with omniscience. And Herod's threat of death, the flight into Egypt, life in exile, the poverty and lowliness in Nazareth---those were shadows cast ahead by the Cross into the young life of the Saviour, and these shadows lay ever deeper and deeper on His public life and activity and weighed on His sensitive soul. He saw the Cross before Him, close up and sharply defined, in the Garden of Olives, and its sight filled Him with such distress and horror that His heart, throbbing wildly, forced the blood through the pores of His skin.

But the next day the Cross He has foreseen so long is brought forth, He takes it upon His shoulders and bears the heavy burden up to Golgotha, where He is nailed to the Cross. Now He is inseparably joined to it, wedded to it by that fatal torture which even the Romans, who were by no means sentimental, considered the most cruel and terrible method of execution. Never was it more cruel, never richer in pain, never carried out on a more tender or more sensitive organism. Spikes, proverbial for their size and temper, are used to fasten the body, already a mass of wounds as the result of the scourging and the crowning with thorns, and now a Martyrdom begins which surpasses all comprehension.

The unnumbered wounds, torn open at the disrobing, become inflamed on contact with the air; the pain they cause is increased beyond endurance. Four large additional wounds have been inflicted, and these wounds in the hands and feet must bear the entire weight of the body, and incessantly the sharp edges of the nails bore into and rend the tissues. The position of the body is insufferable, yet the slightest movement causes new pains. Not a moment of rest or relief. Wound upon wound. Member by member is tortured. Every muscle is stretched to the utmost and twisted. Then fever-heat, bathing the body in its flames, burning and seething in the wounds and, augmented by loss of blood, causing severe thirst.

And yet, extreme as this torture of the body is, that of the soul is even greater. For Jesus, the innocent, pure and most holy, suffering and death are not sweetened by the sense of innocence as is the case with so many Saints and Martyrs. For the death He is dying is not that of innocence, but of guilt. "Him, Who knew no sin, God hath made sin for us," the Apostle declares (2 Cor. v, 21). He is laden with the sins of an entire world. Therefore the beatifying consciousness of nearness to God departs from Him, and we hear Him calling out pitifully and in fear: "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me!"

St. Chrysostom declares that the death of the Cross was more than mere dying. It is a death in which the throes of pain, the distress, and the anguish of all who have died and who will yet die on earth are united into one. The Cross truly symbolizes the essence and the climax of all suffering and pain in the life of Jesus. It is an eloquent symbol of the most painful contrasts and contradictions. As the two beams stand out boldly one against the other, and cross each other in strikingly opposite lines, thus in the suffering and death of Jesus the greatest contrasts cross and intersect each other: heavenly innocence and frightful suffering in atonement of guilt; divine immortality and human mortality; the sin of mankind and the grace of God; the Divine majesty and man's disgrace and degradation; the sonship of God and man's abandonment by God.

But in being nailed to the Cross these contrasts become a blessing for humanity, being dissolved, eliminated, adjusted, and reconciled. Guilt is wiped out by innocence, sin conquered by grace, shame converted into glory, weakness into strength, suffering into victory, death into life.
At no time did the Saviour accomplish anything greater than on the Cross, where He was unable to move either hand or foot; never did He work greater wonders than when, covered with wounds, He hung on the cross. During His lifetime He raised men from the dead, healed the sick, pardoned individual sinners, enlisted a number of disciples, cast out devils here and there. But in His Passion and death He conquered Death itself, made atonement for sin, redeemed pain, triumphed over Hell, vanquished the world, and drew mankind unto Himself.

It was then that His kingship began---His reign over the world from the Cross. It was then that He began to fulfill the prophecy: I, when I shall be raised up from earth, will draw all things unto Myself (Jn. xii, 32). This kingship endures through all the centuries and the power of attraction emanating from the Cross is the same today as it was at His death. The Cross itself has become something entirely different from what it was. Once a pillory, it is now the throne of a King; once an accursed tree, it is now a symbol of blessing; once an instrument of death, it is now a tree of life. Aye, this dead, bare, denuded tree of the Cross surpasses all trees of earth in intrinsic power to produce life, fullness of vigor, growth and fruitfulness. It has taken root everywhere and bears fruits of life. The word of the Cross indeed embraces much lowliness, torture, misery and weakness, but also and still more nobility and strength and victorious power. Therefore it is foolishness only to the fools that perish, but to them that are saved---that is, to us---it is the power of God.

But the life, the strength, the salvation of the Cross can be shared only by him who also shares it pain and burden. How shall we have a part in it? First, by compassionately bearing the sufferings of Jesus in our hearts; second, by bearing our own cross; and third, by crucifying our evil desires.

To have compassion with the Crucified Saviour has always been considered a sacred duty by Christians. This compassion is never lacking in the lives of the Saints. It has produced an abundance of devotions: the Way of the Cross, the devotion to the Five Wounds, that to the Most Precious Blood, the Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary, etc. This compassion once filled the heart of Christ's Mother under the Cross. Each Good Friday it overwhelms the heart of the Church anew and wrings from it the stirring lamentations we heard today.

The wounds of the Saviour, with their bleeding lips, cry out: Have compassion with Him Who suffered so frightfully for you! The drops of blood seeping from the wounds demand one little tear of compassion. The glance of the glazing eyes, the thirsting mouth, plead for one little tear. Jesus does not demand this compassion for Himself, as though He were in need of it, but because you need it.

This compassion must establish the connection between you and His suffering. It is the silver tube leading the painful bitterness of His Passion from His wounds into your heart; but with the bitterness also its healing power. It is for this reason such compassion strengthens and sustains the soul, cleanses it, preserves it from sin, prompts good resolutions, enthuses it to great deeds and sacrifices.

But this compassion, this sorrowing with Christ must become real suffering with Christ, veneration of the Cross a real bearing of the cross. He demands it, and He demands it of all: "If any man will come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me" (Matt. xvi, 24). "He that taketh not up his cross and followeth Me, is not worthy of Me" (Matt. x, 38). This is the great law of His kingdom which all must obey without exception. "Christ having suffered in the flesh," the Prince of the Apostles admonishes us (1 Pet. iv, 1), "be you also armed with the same thought," that is, expect also to suffer and be as willing to suffer as He was. Accept all the great and small sufferings, cares, labors, trials of life as a cross which God has fashioned for you. Do not try to beg off or to shirk your duty; that would be of no avail. Be your cross yet so hard, and rough at the edges, and difficult to bear---take it upon yourselves and bear it after Him, touch it to His cross by uniting yourselves to Him in the spirit of sacrifice, penance, patience, and resignation. If you do that, strength will flow like an electric current from the Cross of Christ into yours, and your burden will grow light. Now we come to the most difficult and the most necessary part of our task: to carry our cross is not sufficient; we must crucify the flesh, that is, the evil lust rooted and abiding in the flesh. It is of this duty that St. Paul speaks so frequently and emphatically: "They that are Christ's," he says, "have crucified their flesh with the vices and concupiscences" (Gal. v, 24); the old man must be crucified with Christ, that we may serve sin no longer, (Rom. vi, 6); of himself he says that he was nailed to the cross with Christ, and carried the mortification of Christ on his body; that the world had been crucified to him and he to the world (Gal. ii, 19; vi, 14). Many Christians hear this message, but refuse to take it seriously. They consider such statements exaggerated figures of speech, or have an idea that they apply to religious and priests, but not to the laity. And because they do not regard them seriously, they fail to gain the mastery over concupiscence and become slaves to evil habits, which cause havoc in their lives and ultimately ruin them, body and soul.
No! The mortification and crucifixion of which the Apostle speaks is not an empty phrase, it is a serious duty incumbent on every Christian. When lust fires the flesh with impure images and desires and stirs the blood---crucify it! crucify it! Think of the Saviour Who did penance in blood and wounds for the sins of the flesh, and raising your eyes to Him, out of love for Him and with His help suppress it, overcome it, mortify it! When sloth, indifference, aversion to prayer are about to cripple your strength and and oppress your soul---crucify them! Gaze upon the Saviour Who did so much for you in the anguish and throes of death; for His sake, with His strength, arouse yourself, fulfill your religious obligations, work, strive, struggle for the salvation of your soul! If enmity, vengefulness, anger are about to set fire to your thoughts and emotions---nail them to the cross! Think of the Saviour Who prayed on the Cross: "Father, forgive!" You, too, must forgive! If evil habits bind you with their fetters, despoil your life, and make it seemingly unbearable---fly to the cross; pray Christ Crucified with all the strength of your soul to grant you the grace to extirpate your evil habits and to conquer them by good habits.

In this fashion must the tree of our life be trimmed with a keen knife and freed from the wild shoots, until it becomes like unto the tree of the Cross and one with it. Then life-giving sap from the Cross will flow into it, and only then will it be able to bear fruits of life, sweet-scented blossoms of joy and interior peace, and delicious fruits of good works, holy practices, glorious virtues---blossoms and fruits which are not destroyed by death but have eternal life and bring eternal life. Amen.

A Sheaf of Sermons Selected from the Writings of
Nihil Obstat and Imprimatur, 1929

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